Catastrophizing: When the worst scenario is the only scenario

An Assembling God’s Puzzle video

By Fr. Garry Richmeier

In this video series “Assembling God’s Puzzle,” I talk about human characteristics and behaviors that I run into fairly often when working with people in counseling. One of these has been labeled “Catastrophizing.” It is closely related to worry, but it goes a step further than worrying about a specific thing. Catastrophizing is what we do when we start thinking about what bad things could happen, and it gets out of hand.

We all know there are scary things “out there” — things that can harm us or our loved ones. And it only makes sense to do what we can to minimize the risks when possible. So we use seat belts to reduce the risk of injury in an accident. And we buy insurance to help pay for possible future medical costs.

But we know the risks still exist, and we know our preparations can’t keep all the possible bad things away.

For some people, that fear of the unknown and the uncertainty is almost unbearable. So they put a face on the unknown by imagining the specific possible awful things that could happen. Then they start thinking that those things probably will happen, which, in a way, makes the uncertain future certain in their mind. Being on high alert in this way can feel safer because we are prepared to repel any threat at any time, and we won’t be blind-sided by something we weren’t prepared for.

But the cost of this preparedness is high. The human imagination can come up with an infinite number of catastrophic scenarios that could happen. As a person mentally lists all of those, it quickly becomes overwhelming because there is no way to prepare for all of them.

What often happens is that a person will identify one bad thing that could happen, which will trigger another negative consequence, which will lead to an even bigger catastrophe, and so on.

For example, my boss might critique some work I did. I may start thinking I’ll get fired. Then I won’t be able to pay my bills. Then I’ll be destitute and homeless. Now I’m dealing with the fear of being homeless, when in reality, I only have to deal with what the boss critiqued me for.

We can always imagine the worst-case scenarios, but worst-case scenarios don’t usually happen.

It is very difficult to be happy and content while maintaining high alert status and constantly surveying the environment for any threat. But another downside is the negative effects such an attitude has on our physical health. When our brain perceives threat, it signals the body to release cortisol and other hormones into the blood stream to prepare the body to respond to the threat and protect itself.

But the body can’t tell the difference between real and imagined threat — it just does what the brain tells it to. If the brain perceives constant threat, the body constantly produces cortisol, which over time causes many physical problems, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis.

So how can catastrophizing be avoided?

First of all, a person must be able to recognize when they are doing it. This requires stepping out of the emotions a little to become aware of the thinking triggering the emotions. The more a person practices this, the better they get at catching themselves catastrophizing.

Another strategy to use when the worst-case scenario comes to mind is to ask oneself “Would I survive it?” Most likely the answer would be “yes.” Much fear and anxiety come from uncertainty about surviving awful things.

Hindsight is also a good thing to use to lessen anxiety. Each of us is here because we have dealt with awful things and have survived. We can find comfort in the thought that we will continue to survive in the future. Another thing to try is to follow the catastrophizing thinking as far as we can.

It helps to do this with paper and pen or on a word processor. We have the ability to imagine infinite possible negative events which trigger each other like a line of dominoes falling. As we start putting all of them down on paper, we quickly find ourselves very distant from the situation at hand, describing very unrealistic and absurd possibilities. This can help ground ourselves in reality.

It is also important to stay focused on the “now.” We can ask ourselves questions like “What is it that needs to be addressed now?”, and “What is possible to do now?”, and “What can only be done in the future, not now?” Then we go about problems solving. Being clear with oneself about what is and what is not in one’s control is very important also. That can save us from burdening ourselves with impossible and unrealistic expectations.

We can benefit more from many of these strategies if we have the help and support of another person, be that a friend, a therapist, or a pastor. We can draw strength from their staying grounded in reality, and they can help us view things more objectively.

I hope some of this will help you avoid catastrophizing. Life presents us with enough clear and present challenges to deal with. We don’t need the added stress of imagining more awful things that may or may not happen.

All of the videos in this series can be found here: Assembly God’s Puzzle.

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[Fr. Garry Richmeier, a Precious Blood priest and spiritual director, holds a Master’s of Divinity Degree from St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and a Master’s of Counseling Psychology degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist.]

Photo 263853427 © Benzoix |

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